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Savage Wars of Peace | The Nation

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Savage Wars of Peace

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It is far from obvious how the Enlightenment arguments for peace that the revolutionaries inherited can have transmuted in so few years into unprecedented bloodshed in Europe, or total war. Curtly summarized, the trajectory seems utterly bizarre. Bell, like all other historians of the Revolution who take its chronology seriously, has his work cut out simply keeping up with the torrent of events. Following the thread of war, he bypasses the beginning of the Revolution and goes straight into the spring of 1790. The National Assembly, which had given itself the protracted task of designing a new constitutional monarchy for France, was prompted to discuss whether or not the king retained the right to declare war by an international dispute over far-off Nootka Sound, in what is now North Vancouver Island. In this debate, on May 15 of that year, Robespierre urged the Assembly to take a "great step" forward:

About the Author

Ruth Scurr
Ruth Scurr teaches history and politics at Cambridge University. She is the author of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the...

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you could show the nations of the earth that, following principles very different from those that have cast the peoples of the world into misery, the French nation, content to be free, has no desire to engage in any war, and wishes to live with all nations in the fraternity commanded by nature.

The Assembly did not simply follow Robespierre's advice, but it did officially renounce wars of conquest; and his intervention is crucial in Bell's story because it raises the wider question of war's legitimacy. A year later, Robespierre opposed the impending war with Austria and Prussia. Other revolutionaries (namely Brissot and others broadly known as the Girondins) thought war would consolidate their domestic achievement, end the need for future wars and spread liberation abroad in its wake. "This war will be the last war," the Girondin General Dumouriez declared. Robespierre knew they were wrong:

The most extravagant idea that can arise in a politician's head is to believe that it is enough for a people to invade a foreign county to make it adopt their laws and their constitution. No one loves armed missionaries....

He had good arguments, but he lost. Meanwhile, Dumouriez emerged as "a new and important type of French figure: the political general." The nation and its resources were increasingly mobilized and directed toward the war effort; and political rhetoric turned ever more apocalyptic after the final fall of the monarchy in August 1792. A month later, at Valmy, Dumouriez had approximately 52,000 soldiers against only 34,000 of the enemy, but half his infantry were new volunteers, untrained and inadequately armed, marching optimistically into battle, singing the "Ça ira." The Revolution and the newborn Republic were at stake. "Valmy, you do not explain it," the French statesman Georges Clémenceau later remarked, "it is an aurora, an aurora of hope...a moral phenomenon." But, Bell claims, "from Valmy to Waterloo, the road runs straight." Even Robespierre, so strikingly pacifist in earlier debates, included this ominous warning in his draft for a new Republican declaration of rights in 1793:

Those who make war on a people to halt the progress of liberty and destroy the rights of man must be attacked by all, not as ordinary enemies, but as assassins and rebel brigands.

In its fight for survival the Revolution would "take no prisoners." This applied equally at home. Bell finds total war fully incarnate in the bloody repression of the counterrevolution in the west of France: the Vendée. This, he insists, was not genocide but a war of extermination. On battlefields abroad, practice did not always correspond to theory; but in the Vendée tragically, horrifically, it did. On August 1, 1793, the Convention (which had been elected to design the new Republican constitution) adopted its scorched-earth policy against the Vendée. "Women, priests, monks, men and children, all were put to death. I took no prisoners. I did my duty, but there is pleasure in avenging one's country," a Republican official reminisced. To distinguish "the face of total war" from guerrilla warfare, Bell emphasizes the "erasure of any line between combatants and noncombatants and the wanton slaughter of both--and at the behest of politics more than military necessity."

The destruction of the Vendée was over by the spring of 1794. Nothing in the following twenty-one years of Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars quite matched it in savagery; still, Bell argues, it represented "a matrix of French experience." He shows the escalating military ambitions of Napoleon intersecting with this matrix and takes the following as signs of total war: apocalyptic rhetoric, extensive mobilization of the nation's resources and the subordination of military necessity to political ends. Napoleon obviously contributed much more to the formula, some of it reminiscent of the old aristocratic approach to war; he had, after all, been trained as a junior officer of the ancien régime. But Bell looks forward rather than back to an understanding of military glory in terms of Romantic transcendence. In 1797 Napoleon's own newspaper explicitly reversed the National Assembly's 1790 renunciation of conquest, to exalt instead "the double glory of conqueror, and of benefactor of nations."

An important strand of continuity between the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars is the composition of the military, which, Bell argues, "was still what the Revolution had made it: a world distinct from civilian society," a world that glorified war. On this analysis it was "the logic of total war" that both drove Napoleon on and ultimately undermined him. The scale and scope of his battles grew exponentially; Bell concedes that while it is "tempting" to think that with more restraint Napoleon might have secured more lasting success, even the most gifted general since Alexander the Great could not escape the demands of total war. The interesting question is: why?

A full answer lies beyond the scope of this book, which is first and foremost an engrossing narrative, drawing the general reader into the bloody birth of European politics as we know it. Even so, the final chapter, "War's Red Altar," argues that insurgents from Portugal to the Tyrol to Russia retaliated by declaring total war on France: It was this mutual and absolute enmity that precluded restraint and produced the horrors that Goya represented in the brutal paintings and drawings that make up his "Disasters of War" series. Spain, writes Bell, became the "ulcer" in Napoleon's empire, and "saw the development of a guerrilla war every bit as destructive as--and eerily similar to--the insurgency now under way in early twenty-first-century Iraq." He explains that "following the philosophes of the Enlightenment, who judged societies by their place on the great ladder of historical progress, and following the Revolutionaries, who had transformed such judgments into political action, Napoleon's men condemned the Spanish as weak and archaic in equal measure." French condescension was misplaced. The Spanish were a different kind of "nation in arms": irregular street fighters determined to expel their invaders, any which way, and at any cost. Corpse after naked corpse was piled high in blood-streaked roads, but insurgency continued.

Perhaps the most important message of Bell's book is also the lone uplifting one: The era of extreme warfare that he describes did not inaugurate permanent total war in Europe. The specter returned in 1914, but for the intervening century it disappeared. Those who reject the characterization of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era as one of "total war" lose with it (if Bell is right) the learning opportunity of the years from 1815 to 1914. Inching back, climbing down, from total war, remembering ways to limit or curtail bellicose exchange and above all dispensing with the idea of an extraordinary war to end all wars: These are urgent lessons for our time. The case Bell makes for beginning in the eighteenth century is robust.

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